(Warning: Major spoilers for both films ahead)
Have you ever noticed that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we know little to nothing about erstwhile protagonist Dave Bowman on a personal level?
He’s brave, resourceful, and cares deeply about both the mission and his colleagues, sure; but other than that he’s a total blank slate.
Pointedly, his fellow crew member Frank receives a transmission from his parents during their mission to Jupiter, wishing him a happy birthday and informing us that Frank has loved ones waiting back home.
With Dave, there is no message. We don’t know if his parents are alive, if he has a girlfriend or wife, or if he has any kids. His personal life is a total mystery.
Having re-watched both Interstellar and 2001 recently, I’m convinced this is one of the most important differences between Christopher Nolan’s modern-day sci-fi epic, and the Stanley Kubrick classic that inspired it.
Interstellar spends a lot of time familiarising us with its own hero, Cooper, on a personal level; introducing us to his family, and especially emphasising the close, meaningful bond he has with daughter Murphy.
When that bond is broken as he leaves on a long-term mission to find a new, habitable planet for humanity, the movie’s central emotional focus is on Murph’s struggle to cope with her father’s abandonment, and Cooper’s determination to find a way back to her.
You could argue that this makes Interstellar more poignant. The scene where Cooper loses 23 years to the horrors of relativity and arrives back on the ship to a flood of messages from his now-adult son and bitter, middle-aged Murph – who has clearly given up on him altogether – is a real gut-wrencher.
Likewise, at the movie’s very climax, when Cooper is picked up by a gigantic space station off Saturn, having cosmically saved the day along with his daughter, the tearful reunion as the elderly Murph lays dying in her bed is undeniably moving.
And yet, as I watched that scene unfold and the credits roll, I was struck by the unmistakable sense that I was sitting through something far less profound, universal and enduring than 2001: A Space Odyssey and its legendary climax.
Ironically for a film that spends a great deal of time emphasising the theme of the personal vs the universal, as characters struggle to reconcile their own private desires with the greater good of their species (something that Matt Damon’s pitiable astronaut has failed to do), Interstellar itself actually chooses the personal over the universal.
Criticism of rampant sentimentality aside – and the final third does somewhat suffer from that – the real issue is that the movie does not put the importance of humanity’s survival and progression front and centre. As the credits roll, the real take-home is that a heartbroken father has finally been reunited and reconciled with his tormented daughter, and all is well with their specific, emotional worlds. The endurance of humanity is merely a pleasant aside.
Compare that, if you will, with the emotional impact of 2001. In Kubrick’s film, there are two key sequences that always move me to tears with their sheer power and resonance every time I watch them.
The first is Dave’s transition from ageing bed-bound man to glowing star-child at the climax of the story.
The second is the much earlier moment when a Monolith-inspired ape finds new meaning in a pile of animal bones, and works out how to use one as a tool/weapon:
It may seem curious that an ape smashing a skull in slow-motion should have such ability to move and inspire on such a deep emotional level, but the key thing here is the universality of the scene.
2001’s key theme is evolution; and the ability of life to survive and progress. When we watch the ancestor of man doing something that makes it discernibly human for the first time, it speaks to us all on a very profound level. This is where we came from. This is the moment we all came to be.
The symbolic nature of violence and progress, destruction and creativity hand in hand is also potent too of course, as is the breathtaking transition of bone to satellite in the scene’s iconic cut. The progress of humanity, our ability to innovate and use technology to reach for the limits of imagination and the very stars, are all encapsulated in one extraordinary shot.
Interstellar has nothing to quite rival that. The wormhole sequence is awe-inspiring, I’ll grant you that, as are the first glimpses of alien planets (and I could talk for ages about how great TARS is as a warm, funny counterpoint to HAL).
But in supplementing its spectacle with a story that is largely a personal one, it arguably loses something in the process.
To look at the star-child moment in 2001, for example, when Dave makes his shift from mere mortal to God-like being, we’re not sat there as the screen fades to black thinking about the guy’s family back home.
We’re not thinking: ‘But what about his wife and kids?’
By refusing to paint a personal picture, and keeping Dave a blank slate, Kubrick allows the audience to project the film’s key theme onto that moment, rather than a specific character arc.
Mankind has evolved into something greater. Mankind’s willpower and thirst for discovery has led to the dawn of a new age. That’s the take-home. That’s why it’s so profound.
Interstellar, meanwhile, merely leaves us feeling happy for Cooper and Murph. ‘Good for them’, we think, as Coop fires up his craft and heads off to find Anne Hathaway’s distant doctor.
In focusing on the personal rather than the universal, Interstellar boils down to the story of one man’s determination to re-unite with his daughter, rather than a narrative about something bigger, and more widely resonant.
If I’d watched a film about a guy lost at sea for years who eventually finds his way back home and re-unites with his adult child, I might have been left with pretty much the same emotional pay-off.
2001 is about the entirety of humanity. Interstellar, despite its best efforts to emulate that, is about one particular father and daughter. When all is said and done, I know which movie will still be having the greater impact on viewers fifty years from now.